“The most efficient conformity engines ever invented”

Reading The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt for The Spectator, 30 March 2024

What’s not to like about a world in which youths are involved in fewer car accidents, drink less, and wrestle with fewer unplanned pregnancies?

Well, think about it: those kids might not be wiser; they might simply be afraid of everything. And what has got them so afraid? A little glass rectangle, “a portal in their pockets” that entices them into a world that’s “exciting, addictive, unstable and… unsuitable for children”.

So far, so paranoid — and there’s a delicious tang of the documentary-maker Adam Curtis about social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s extraordinarily outspoken, extraordinarily well-evidenced diatribe against the creators of smartphone culture, men once hailed, “as heroes, geniuses, and global benefactors who,” Haidt says, “like Prometheus, brought gifts from the gods to humanity.”

The technological geegaw Haidt holds responsible for the “great rewiring” of brains of people born after 1995 is not, interestingly enough, the iPhone itself (first released in 2007) but its front-facing camera, released with the iPhone 4 in June 2010. Samsung added one to its Galaxy the same month. Instagram launched in the same year. Now users could curate on-line versions of themselves on the fly — and they do, incessantly. Maintaining an on-line self is a 24/7 job. The other day on Crystal Palace Parade I had to catch a pram from rolling into the street while the young mother vogued and pouted into her smartphone.

Anecdotes are one thing; evidence is another. The point of The Anxious Generation is not to present phone-related pathology as though it were a new idea, but rather to provide robust scientific evidence for what we’ve all come to assume is true: that there is causal link (not just some modish dinner-party correlation) between phone culture and the ever more fragile mental state of our youth. “These companies,” Haidt says, “have rewired childhood and changed human development on an almost unimaginable scale.”

Haidt’s data are startling. Between 2010 and 2015, depression in teenage girls and boys became two and a half times more prevalent. From 2010 to 2020, the rate of self-harm among young adolescent girls nearly tripled. The book contains a great many bowel-loosening graphs, with titles like “High Psychological Distress, Nordic Nations” and “Alienation in School, Worldwide”. There’s one in particular I can’t get out of my head, showing the percentage of US students in 8th 10th and 12th grade who said they were happy in themselves. Between 2010 and 2015 this “self-satisfaction score” falls off a cliff.

The Anxious Generation revises conclusions Haidt drew in 2018, while collaborating with the lawyer Greg Lukianoff on The Coddling of the American Mind. Subtitled “How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure”, that book argued that universities and other institutes of higher education (particularly in the US) were teaching habits of thinking so distorted, they were triggering depression and anxiety among their students. Why else would students themselves be demanding that colleges protect them from books and speakers that made them feel “unsafe”? Ideas that had caused little or no controversy in 2010 “were, by 2015, said to be harmful, dangerous, or traumatising,” Haidt remembers.

Coddling’s anti-safe-space, “spare the rod and spoil the child” argument had merit, but Haidt soon came to realise it didn’t begin to address the scale of the problem: “by 2017 it had become clear that the rise of depression and anxiety was happening in many countries, to adolescents of all educational levels, social classes and races.”

Why are people born after 1996 so — well — different? So much more anxious, so much more judgemental, so much more miserable? Phone culture is half of Haidt’s answer; the other is a broader argument about “safetyism”, which Haidt defines as “the well-intentioned and disastrous shift toward overprotecting children and restricting their autonomy in the ‘real world’.”

Boys suffer more from being shut in and overprotected. Girls suffer more from the way digital technologies monetize and weaponise peer hierarchies. Although the gender differences are interesting, it’s the sheer scale of harms depicted here that should galvanise us. Haidt’s suggested solutions are common sense and commonplace: stop punishing parents for letting their children have some autonomy. Allow children plenty of unstructured free play. Ban phones in school.

For Gen-Z, this all comes too late. Over-protection in the real world, coupled with an almost complete lack of protections in the virtual world, has consigned a generation of young minds to what is in essence a play-free environment. In the distributed, unspontaneous non-space of the digital device, every action is performed in order to achieve a prescribed goal. Every move is strategic. “Likes” and “comments”, “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” provide immediate real time metrics on the efficacy or otherwise of thousands of micro-decisions an hour, and even trivial mistakes bring heavy costs.

In a book of devastating observations, this one hit home very hard: that these black mirrors of ours are “the most efficient conformity engines ever invented”.